Jay Meehan: A century-old moral compass in Ferlinghetti
“I certainly was surprised to be named Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the Mayor, “How could I refuse?” I’d rather be Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world.”
~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti
It was just about 20 years ago that my then esteemed editor, Nan Chalat-Noaker, and I, were having discussions about when I would begin writing my new column in The Park Record and what I would call it and that sort of thing.
As time crept by on tiptoes without actual answers to those questions raising their heads above shoulder level, I began submitting random pieces if only to keep my foot firmly wedged in the doorway.
One, if memory serves, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth. Another dealt with Bob Dylan and his upcoming Salt Lake show with Paul Simon. There were others.
Around that same time, I stumbled upon a piece in some periodical written by Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame. Garrison, of course, being a personal hero and all, had me pulling over to the closest virtual curb post-haste.
A joy to read, the article concerned itself with the fast approaching 80th birthday of one Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another hero of my fawning literary self and proprietor of the world renowned City Lights bookshop in San Francisco.
The piece orbited a pre-arranged lunch date between the two at one of those perfectly oriented outdoor cafes in the North Beach neighborhood and just down the street from the aforementioned purveyor of the somewhat packaged printed word.
They didn’t have to bandy about anecdotes featuring Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsburg or Lawrence’s recent bicycle mishap caused by a passing double-take at a young woman’s aft section. But, they did! Eighty, indeed!
I loved the concept and immediately made a mental note to myself to pen a similar but personal piece for my column. Mental notes, at least with me, are somewhat akin to rapping on a window with a damp sponge.
Suffice to say, Ferlinghetti’s 80th came and went, followed by his 80th, and now, his 100th. And, of course, although he’s still kicking, my intended homage has yet to see the light of day. Until now, that is!
For one who has never actually met Lawrence (the term “Larry” is verboten), my sense going-in is of us having spent many evenings together at such “beat” haunts as Vesuvio’s (across Jack Kerouac Alley from City Lights), or Specs across Columbus Avenue, or Tosca Café, which features thick discs of opera fare on their jukebox. As you can tell, I can fantasize anything.
Although they’ve made a few adjustments interior and organization-wise during the years my shadow has been darkening their doorway, I’m fairly certain I could locate the upstairs Poetry Room or the “Beat Lit” section without too much trouble. The basement, however, always had an aura that defied whatever categories you rode in on.
I even found a biography of Maria Sabina, the Saint of Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, also known as “the woman who glows in the dark” and the Goddess of the psilocybin mushroom down there. As one would expect, it had wormed its way into the exact darkness required of its biology.
Now, as I understood it at the time, Lawrence’s apartment wasn’t too far, as the mushroom shoot flies, from the pile of darkness in which such fertilized esoterica can flourish.
As a disclaimer, I should add that during the typing of this, I’ve had to replay Lawrence’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz” over and over just to keep my bearings. I have also kept a relatively dog-eared copy of “A Coney Island of the Mind” within reach.
So, happy belated 100th birthday, Lawrence. The folks I speak to who have actually met you always repeat your name with reverence. Not that they don’t have a glint in their eye when they do. You are a beacon and a moral compass to many of us. Keep hard to port, Matey! You’ve got the Conn!
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